Skip to main content

The dos and don’ts of caring for your bonsai tree

Basic bonsai tree care tips and tricks

A ficus bonsai tree in a brown pot on a table.
BayCengiz / Pixabay

Bonsai trees are, by design, relaxing and beautiful to look at. Thanks to the internet and international shipping, bonsai trees are becoming more and more popular in America, and many gardeners are interested in bringing one of these stunning works of living art home. Bonsai trees need light, water, and fertilizer like any other plant, but their shape and size also need to be maintained. If you plan on growing your own bonsai tree, there are a few things you’ll need to know first. Here is your guide to the basics of bonsai.

A pine bonsai tree in a brown pot.
LUCA_Finardi / Pixabay

What is bonsai?

Bonsai is the traditional Japanese art of growing miniature trees. A bonsai tree is any small tree grown in a shallow pot or dish that is trained to grow in a way that resembles a fully grown tree. You can think of bonsai almost like a living sculpture, and like any other art form, there are certain conventions and traditions that bonsai artists follow.

Following these conventions, bonsai trees are meant to mimic the growth patterns of full-size trees. They aren’t symmetrical, and their designs are often inspired by the factors that shape trees in the wild. There are several categories, called bonsai styles, that bonsai trees can fall into. These styles define the shape and points of inspiration for the bonsai tree. For example, the slanting style draws inspiration from trees that have been skewed by strong wind, like you might find on a cliff. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden has a list of the five basic styles, as well as several modern variations and example photos to go along with them.

An old bonsai tree in the slanting style.
scartmyart / Pixabay

Sourcing and starting your bonsai tree

Since bonsai trees can be any tree variety capable of surviving in miniature form, you have plenty of options. Pines, spruces, and cypress trees are among the most popular. You can also opt for flowering shrubs and trees, such as azaleas and wisterias, and even fruit-bearing trees, such as apples!

After you’ve decided what type of bonsai you want to grow, you can choose how you want to begin your bonsai. The easiest way to start is with a kit or pre-grown bonsai. You can find these in some gardening stores or nurseries, as well as online. Starting this way is faster, as you won’t have to wait for the tree to mature, and kits come with further instructions and supplies to help you get started.

You can also start your bonsai from a cutting, seedling, or seed. Keep in mind that this takes much longer and is more difficult than starting with a mature bonsai. It will be a few years before your seedling will be ready to start shaping. While starting from a young plant can be rewarding, it is also a massive time commitment.

A bonsai tree growing red berries
IlonaBurschl / Pixabay

Styling your bonsai tree

Styling your bonsai is the process of carefully pruning and shaping the branches and trunk of the tree to achieve and maintain the desired design. Rather than a single step in growing your bonsai tree, think of styling as multiple tasks to add to your regular care routine.

Pruning a bonsai tree is similar to pruning any other tree or shrub. A few times per year, cut branches that are outgrowing your bonsai, as well as those growing in the wrong location for the design. You may need to invest in smaller pruning shears, but if you have trees with particularly small branches, you can remove them by hand.

Wiring means using wires to direct the shape and direction of branches. This is done by wrapping wire around the branch and trunk, then bending the branch into position. The wire supports the branch and holds it in place until the branch can keep its shape. Check the wires daily and remove them if they begin cutting into the branch. Bonsais can grow quickly, and you don’t want the branch to grow around the wire. Not only will this look unappealing, but the open lacerations leave your bonsai tree vulnerable to pests and diseases.

A jade plant bonsai being wired into shape
robbrownaustralia / Pixabay

Bonsai tree care

In addition to styling your tree, you’ll need to ensure it has plenty of water, fertilizer, and sunlight. Make sure the pot your tree is in has plenty of drainage holes. Since bonsai grows in shallow pots, drainage is important to prevent overwatering. They also need more frequent waterings and fertilizer applications for this reason. Keep the soil moist but not soggy, and fertilize your bonsai tree regularly during spring and summer. You can find bonsai-specific fertilizer online or in gardening supply stores.

Your bonsai’s light needs depend on the type of tree you’re growing. Most commonly used species prefer bright indirect light and warm temperatures, but some can adapt to low lighting. The potential pests will vary depending on your tree as well. While indoor bonsai are less likely to see pest damage, keep an eye on your outdoor bonsai. Apply an organic pest repellent like neem oil as a precaution if you notice increased pest activity.

Creating and maintaining a beautiful bonsai tree can be tricky at first, but with practice and patience, anyone can learn this art form. Now that you have a grasp of the basic steps, you’re ready to start looking for your first bonsai tree. As your tree grows, so will you, and soon, you’ll be ready to branch out into more complicated techniques!

Editors' Recommendations

Cayla Leonard
Cayla Leonard is a writer from North Carolina who is passionate about plants.  She enjoys reading and writing fiction and…
How to spruce up your living room with indoor climbing plants
From pothos to ivies, here are the best indoor climbing plants
A pothos as a wall vine

Vining plants add beauty and intrigue to many outdoor gardens. But did you know that they can also add personality and visual appeal to your home or apartment? While they may require a little more maintenance than your average houseplant, indoor climbing plants are definitely worth your time and effort. With the proper care and the right environment, you can grow a thriving indoor vine that beautifully accents your home — we'll show you how to do it!

Growing and training an indoor vine
As you start to grow your indoor climbing plant, it's important to train the vine to climb or trail properly. If you'd like your new vine to double as a piece of wall decor, draping it over wall hooks or a small trellis is a great way to start training the vine as it grows. You could also place the vine near a canvas or photograph hanging on the wall if you like the look of leaves looping over your wall art.

Read more
Wondering how much light orchids need? We have your answers
Here's how to decide where to place your orchid in your home
Purple potted orchids

Orchids are unique flowering houseplants that are highly sought after by indoor gardeners for their delicate blooms and arching stems. There are roughly 30,000 different species of orchids, characterized by their distinctive flower shape, bright colors, and elegant stems. Their beauty makes them popular, but they have an unfortunate reputation for being finicky and difficult to grow. One major reason for this reputation is their specific lighting preferences. If you have questions about orchid light needs, this is the guide for you!

How much light does an orchid need indoors?
Orchids thrive on strong lighting indoors, which means you need to find a space that isn’t dark for a majority of the day. Because orchids value such strong light levels, it’s important to make sure they have a consistent amount each day when grown indoors. You want to pick a location that has the same amount of day and night, day in and day out, aside from the gradual change of the seasons and the unpredictable cloudy days.
What kind of light does an orchid require?
So what kind of light is strong light? It’s bright, full sunlight; however, orchids don’t like a lot of heat, so you want to avoid areas that get direct afternoon sun (think all the windows in your home that shine the brightest come lunchtime — those are bad for orchids). At a minimum, you want your orchid to get 5 to 6 hours of sunlight per day, but you may still want to avoid directly placing your orchid on windowsills so that the intense light can’t burn the leaves.
Do orchids do well in low light?
Unfortunately, no. An orchid kept in low lighting won’t thrive, and you may start to see the leaves darken and wilt over time because they aren’t receiving enough sun to keep the plant’s energy levels up. If your orchid is in a lower light environment, it’s best to either move it to where it can receive more sunlight or buy a grow light to keep it under so that it can get what it needs.

Read more
How often should you fertilize your indoor plants? Here’s what to know
Here's what to know about fertilizing indoor plants
A person laying out all the materials to fertilize a houseplant

Many people use fertilizers to make up for poor soil or give plants a boost right before blooming or fruiting. Using fertilizers in outdoor gardens can be fairly simple, but what about indoor plants? You can usually use the same fertilizers for both indoor and outdoor gardens, but that doesn't mean using them in the same way.

Indoor plants have less soil, so you might wonder if they need a different amount of fertilizer or a different fertilizer schedule. How often should you fertilize indoor plants? We have answers.

Read more